We are a group of seven artists who made the decision to attend USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program based on the faculty, curriculum, program structure, and funding packages. We are a group of seven artists who have been forced by the school’s dismantling of each of these elements to dissolve our MFA candidacies. In short, due to the university’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.
In a slew of unproductive, confounding, and contradictory meetings with the dean and other assorted members of the Roski administration in early 2015, we were told that we would now have to apply for, and compete with a larger pool of students for, the same TAships promised to us during recruitment. We were presented with a different curriculum, one in which entire semesters would occur without studio visits, a bizarre choice for a studio art MFA. Shocked by these bewildering and last-minute changes, we reached out to the university’s upper administration. We were then told by the vice provost for Graduate Programs that the communication we received during recruitment clearly stating our funding packages was an “unfortunate mistake,” and that if the program wasn’t right for us, we “should leave.” Throughout this grueling process of attempting to reason with the institution, the Roski School and university administration used manipulative tactics of delaying decisions, blaming others, contradicting each other’s stated policies, and attempting to force a wedge of silence between faculty and students. At every single turn, the dean and every other administrator we interacted with tried to delegitimize and belittle our real concerns, repeatedly framing us as “demanding” simply for advocating for those things the school had already promised us.
As of 5 p.m. on May 10, 2015, after four months, seven meetings that we held in good faith with the administration, and countless emails, we had no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year; we had no idea what the curriculum would be, other than that it would be different from what it was when we enrolled, and that it was in the process of being implemented by administrators outside of our field of study; and finally, we had no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would graduate with.
Since February 2015, we have been communicating in writing to the provost of the university, the vice provost for Graduate Programs, the dean of the Roski School, and other USC administrators that we could not continue in the program if the funding and curricular promises made during recruitment were not honored; thus, the university is not blindsided by our decision, nor has it been denied ample time and opportunity to remedy these issues with us. Perhaps the university imagined that we would suffer any amount of lies, manipulations, and mistreatment for those shiny degrees.
Let’s not forget about the larger system of inequity that we paid into to try to get our degrees. USC tuition has increased an astounding 92 percent since 2001,1139 compensation for USC’s top eight executives has more than tripled since 2001, and Department of Education data shows that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.” Adjunct faculty positions—the jobs that freshly minted MFAs usually get, if they’re lucky—are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage, while these adjuncts are paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt. USC follows this trend of supporting a bloated administration with whom students have minimal contact, to the diminishment of everyone else. Our experience has shown that, despite having ultimate power over the program structure and curriculum, the administration has minimal concern for students. Meanwhile, faculty voices are silenced and adjunct faculty expands, affecting their overall ability to advocate for students. In a classic bait and switch, we seven students lost time, money, and trust, and the larger community lost an exemplary funding model that attempted to rectify at least some of these economic disparities. What we experienced is the true “disruption” of this accelerating trend.
We each made life-changing decisions to leave jobs and homes in other parts of the country and the world to work with inspiring faculty and, most of all, have the time and space to grow as artists. We trusted the institution to follow through on its promises. Instead, we became devalued pawns in the university’s administrative games. We feel betrayed, exhausted, disrespected, and cheated by USC of our time, focus, and investment. Whatever artistic work we created this spring semester was achieved in spite of, not because of, the institution. Because the university refused to honor its promises to us, we are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.
A group of seven students is only a tiny part of the larger issues of the corporatization of higher education, the scandal of the economic precarity of adjunct faculty positions, and the looming student-debt bubble. However, the MFA Program we entered in August 2014 did one great thing: it threw us all together, when we might not have crossed paths on our own. We will continue to hold crits ourselves and be involved in each other’s work. We will be staging a series of readings, talks, shows, and events at multiple sites throughout the next year, and will follow with seven weeks of “thesis” shows beginning in April of 2016. Our collective and interdependent force is energizing as we progress toward supportive and malleable spaces conducive to criticality and encouragement. These sites are more important than ever in the current state of economic precarity that reaches far beyond the fates of seven art students. We invite everyone to reach out to us with proposals, invitations, and strategies of their own, dreams not of creating a “better” institution, but devising new spaces for collective weirdness and joy.